Features

Features

Reprinted from the Weill Cornell Medicine Newsroom, August 1, 2016

Financial exploitation of older people by those who should be protecting them results in devastating health, emotional and psychological consequences. A group of international elder abuse experts met in June at Weill Cornell Medicine to map out a strategy for conducting research on this problem in low and middle income countries.

The meeting, organized by Dr. Mark Lachs, co-chief of the Division of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine and the Irene F. and I. Roy Psaty Distinguished Professor of Clinical Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, and Dr. Karl Pillemer, director of the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research and the Hazel E. Reed Professor in the Department of Human Development at Cornell University, brought together experts from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Argentina.

Pillemer

Karl Pillemer, Director of the BCTR

"Over the last few years, studies have found financial abuse and exploitation of older people to be extremely prevalent and extremely harmful for older people," said Dr. Pillemer, who is also a professor of gerontology in medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. "These studies have mostly been done in the United States, England, and other high income countries, but very little is known about how this problem plays out in low-income countries. Our goal was to bring together research internationally and comparatively to try to understand this problem."

"This issue is an interesting integration of sociology, medicine, economics and geopolitics," said Dr. Lachs, who is director of Weill Cornell Medicine's Center for Aging Research and Clinical Care and director of geriatrics for the New York-Presbyterian Health System. "There has been growing interest here in the United States on financial vulnerability of older people, but I'm unaware of an international group that is focused on this."

One consequence of older people who are being financially exploited is that they cannot meet their own health needs. There are also psychological and emotional consequences because some older people live in fear of relatives who may be exploiting them and may give away much needed pensions to spouses, adult children, and other extended family members.

Elder experts

Elder experts Top (from left): Chelsie Burchett, Bridget Penhale, Karl Pillemer, Janey Peterson, Kendon Conrad, Mark Lachs, Natal Ayiga, Steve Gresham. Bottom (from left): Peter Lloyd-Sherlock, David Burnes, Nelida Redondo.

According to Dr. Pillemer, based on available evidence, 5 to 10 percent of older people globally may experience some kind of financial exploitation. Exploitation can take different forms. In high-income countries, like the United States, the abuse may encompass theft, misuse of power of attorney or denying access to funds. In low-income regions, financial exploitation results from abuse of local laws and cultural norms. For example, in some South American countries, the law requires that children receive the parents’ dwelling, resulting in children moving parents into nursing homes in order to obtain the house. In parts of sub-Saharan Africa, women may be accused of witchcraft in order to seize their property or gain access to their funds.

Government pensions in low-income countries have become a source of income for older people, which puts them at risk for financial exploitation. However, researchers need to be sensitive to local cultural norms in their conduct of research and analysis of data so governments are not hesitant to provide much needed income to older people, according to Dr. Lachs.

"In some of the countries there's a cultural expectation that if the older person has a pension it will be shared with other family members," Dr. Lachs said. "Whereas in my practice, if a patient tells me that a child is asking for some of their pension, it raises the specter of the potential for financial exploitation."

The group, Dr. Pillemer said, concluded that there's a desperate need for new scientific knowledge about the extent, causes and consequences of this problem, as well as a need to understand how the problem of financial exploitation is the same across countries, and how it differs. The group is now working on a white paper to make the case for comparative research on financial exploitation of older people.

"That's important for a very critical reason: By looking at the dynamics of financial abuse in different countries, we can understand how policies affect both how much abuse occurs and how to deal with it," Dr. Pillemer said.

In addition to Dr. Pillemer and Dr. Lachs, attendees of the meeting were:

  • Bridget Penhale, Reader in Mental Health, University of East Anglia, UK;
  • Peter Lloyd-Sherlock, Professor of Social Policy and International Development, University of East Anglia, UK;
  • Steve Gresham, Executive Vice President, Private Client Group, Fidelity Investments, and Adjunct Lecturer in International and Public Affairs, Watson Institute, Brown University;
  • David Burnes, Assistant Professor, Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto;
  • Nelida Redondo, Senior Researcher, Universidad Isalud, Argentina;
  • Natal Ayiga, North-West University, South Africa;
  • Janey Peterson, Associate Professor of Clinical Epidemiology in Medicine, Integrative Medicine and Cardiothoracic Surgery, Weill Cornell Medicine; and
  • Ken Conrad, Professor Emeritus, University of Illinois at Chicago.

The meeting was supported by the Elbrun & Peter Kimmelman Family Foundation, Inc.

A large and growing body of research shows that poor kids grow up to have a host of physical problems as adults.

Now add psychological deficits to the list, Cornell researchers say.

Childhood poverty can cause significant psychological deficits in adulthood, according to a sweeping new study. The research, conducted by tracking participants over a 15-year period, is the first to show this damage occurs over time and in a broad range of ways.

Impoverished children in the study had more psychological distress as adults, including more antisocial conduct like aggression and bullying and more helplessness behavior, than kids from middle-income backgrounds. Poor kids also had more chronic physiological stress and more deficits in short-term spatial memory.

Gary Evans, Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Development

“What this means is, if you’re born poor, you’re on a trajectory to have more of these kinds of psychological problems,” said Gary Evans, the author of the study and the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Ecology, and professor in the departments of design and environmental analysis, and human development.

Why? In a word, stress.

“With poverty, you’re exposed to lots of stress. Everybody has stress, but low-income families, low-income children, have a lot more of it,” Evans said. “And the parents are also under a lot of stress. So for kids, there is a cumulative risk exposure.”

Evans, a child psychologist who specializes in the effects of stress on children, is the author of “Childhood poverty and adult psychological well-being,” published Dec. 12 in the Proceedings of the National Academic of Sciences (PNAS).

The findings are important because kids who grow up in poverty are likely to stay impoverished as adults, Evans said. For example, there’s a 40 percent chance that a son’s income will be the same as his father’s income. That’s because the United States has the least social mobility of any wealthy Western democracy, he said.

“People walk around with this idea in their head that if you work hard, play by the rules, you can get ahead,” Evans said. “And that’s just a myth. It’s just not true.”

In his study, Evans tested 341 participants, all white, at ages 9, 13, 17 and 24.

Short-term spatial memory was tested by asking adult study participants to repeat increasingly complex sequences of lights and sounds by pressing four colored pads in the correct order – similar to the “Simon” game. The adults who grew up in poverty had a diminished ability to recall the sequences, compared to those who did not.

“This is an important result because the ability to retain information in short-term memory is fundamental to a host of basic cognitive skills, including language and achievement,” Evans wrote.

Although the participants were assessed on this measure only when they were adults, this test had the strongest association with childhood poverty of the four measures.

Helplessnesswas assessed by asking the participants to solve an impossible puzzle. Adults who grew up in poverty gave up 8 percent quicker than those who weren’t poor as kids. Previous research has shown chronic exposure to uncontrollable stressors – such as family turmoil and substandard housing – tends to induce helplessness.

Mental healthwas measured with a well-validated, standardized index of mental health with statements including “I argue a lot” and “I am too impatient.” Adults who grew up in poverty were more likely to agree with those questions than adults from a middle-income background.

Chronic physiological stress was tested by measuring the participants’ blood pressure, stress hormones and body mass index. Adults who grew up in poverty had a higher level of chronic physical stress throughout childhood and into adulthood.

The study has two implications, Evans said. First, early intervention to prevent these problems is more efficient and more likely to work.

“If you don’t intervene early, it’s going to be really difficult and is going to cost a lot to intervene later,” he said.

Second, increasing poor families’ incomes is the most efficient way to reduce a child’s exposure to poverty and, in turn, their risk of developing psychological problems. Evans supports the creation of a safety net, similar to Social Security’s supplemental income for the elderly and disabled. If a family is poor and has children, the federal government should provide them with supplementary income sufficient to participate in society, he said.

“It’s not true you can’t do anything about poverty. It’s just whether there’s the political will, and are people willing to reframe the problem, instead of blaming the person who is poor and – even more preposterous – blaming their children,” he said.

“This is a societal issue, and if we decide to reallocate resources like we did with the elderly and Social Security, we could change the kind of data this study is showing,” he said.

“Could we get rid of poverty? Probably not,” Evans said. “But I think we could change it dramatically.”

The research was supported by the W.T. Grant Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the National Institute for Minority Health and Health Disparities.

Reprinted from the Cornell Chronicle, May 25th, 2016

By Olivia M. Hall

The cuts, burns and scars of nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI) are rarely seen, as they are inflicted in private and hidden under pant legs and sleeves.

Janis Whitlock

Janis Whitlock, Ph.D.

Janis Whitlock, Ph.D. ’03, director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery (CRPSIR) and a research scientist in the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, hopes to spotlight the issue by launching a set of web-based education and training courses. Working with eCornell, the university’s online learning subsidiary, she is showing how researchers can use the internet to broaden their reach well beyond campus.

The curriculum, aimed at individuals who interact with youths in school, community and clinical settings, as well as parents, offers research-based information paired with intervention and prevention strategies to address a phenomenon that is widespread but not yet fully understood.

“It’s a scary thing to encounter,” said Whitlock. “It’s just not your typical, run-of-the-mill risk behavior.”

Individuals practicing NSSI – upward of 15 percent of adolescents and young adults try it at least once – deliberately damage their bodies, for example by cutting, burning or carving their skin or punching objects or themselves to inflict harm. Whitlock cites 15 to 17 percent lifetime prevalence of NSSI among Cornell students, according to surveys.

Although the surface wounds may look like suicide attempts, Whitlock pointed out that NSSI is, in fact, a coping mechanism for individuals trying to deal with intense feelings or attempting to reconnect from a sense of dissociation that stems from a history of trauma or abuse.

After first hearing about NSSI among otherwise functional, nonclinical adolescents more than a decade ago, Whitlock launched epidemiological studies, founded CRPSIR and brought together colleagues to form the International Society for the Study of Self-Injury in 2006. “Now we have so much literature coming out, I can’t keep up with it,” she said. But research on techniques for intervention in schools and families is still nascent, and findings do not always reach those in need.

“When I give presentations in schools, even elementary schools, I can pack a house talking about self-injury – it’s really pretty sad,” said Whitlock. “People come up to me asking for follow-up information. Clearly we need another dissemination vehicle.”

Paul Krause ’91, CEO of eCornell and associate vice provost for online learning, agreed: “We quickly recognized that it would make sense to work together because eCornell has all the capabilities to support the development, delivery and marketing of an online NSSI course.”

Best known for its professional development courses in such areas as marketing, finance and hospitality, eCornell also applies its experience and best practices to specialized curricula such as Whitlock’s to extend research-based education to learners beyond Ithaca.

Some 40 participants have enrolled since the first, self-paced version of the NSSI 101 courselaunched in February. This month, Whitlock is facilitating co-experts on NSSI by teaching the first iteration of a three-week version that offers eight to 10 hours of interactive instruction and continuing education credits. Shorter, abridged courses are also in development for medical professionals and parents of children who self-injure.

“This is an exciting opportunity for us,” said Krause, under whose leadership eCornell doubled the number of faculty members it works with to more than 100 over the past year. “We have faculty who are leading experts in their fields. eCornell’s mission is to help them use online learning to reach people all over the world.” (Whitlock’s first registrant was from South Korea.)

“The audiences with whom we seek to engage – be they parents, educators or others – need information that is high-quality, based in sound research, is compelling and that they can access on their own schedule,” added Rachel Dunifon, associate dean for research and outreach in theCollege of Human Ecology. “Working with eCornell to deliver research-based programming allows us to take a cutting-edge approach to our public engagement mission, broadening our reach and enhancing our impact as we seek to fulfill our college mission of improving lives.”

Olivia M. Hall, Ph.D. '12, is a freelance writer and anthropologist.

Reprinted from the New York Times, June 6, 2016

by Perri Klass, M.D.girl alone 2

When girls come in for their physical exams, one of the questions I routinely ask is “Do you get
your period?” I try to ask before I expect the answer to be yes, so that if a girl doesn’t seem to know about the changes of puberty that lie ahead, I can encourage her to talk about them with her mother, and offer to help answer questions. And I often point out that even those who have not yet embarked on puberty themselves are likely to have classmates who are going through these changes, so, again, it’s important to let kids know that their questions are welcome, and will be answered accurately.

But like everybody else who deals with girls, I’m aware that this means bringing up the topic when girls are pretty young. Puberty is now coming earlier for many girls, with bodies changing in the third and fourth grade, and there is a complicated discussion about the reasons, from obesity and family stress to chemicals in the environment that may disrupt the normal effects of hormones. I’m not going to try to delineate that discussion here — though it’s an important one — because I want to concentrate on the effect, rather than the cause, of reaching puberty early.

A large study published in May in the journal Pediatrics looked at a group of 8,327 children born in Hong Kong in April and May of 1997, for whom a great deal of health data has been collected. The researchers had access to the children’s health records, showing how their doctors had documented their physical maturity, according to what are known as the Tanner stages, for the standardized pediatric index of sexual maturation.

Before children enter puberty, we call it Tanner I; for girls, Tanner II is the beginning of breast development, while for boys, it’s the enlargement of the scrotum and testes and the reddening and changing of the scrotum skin. Boys and girls then progress through the intermediate changes to stage V, full physical maturity.

In this study, the researchers looked at the relationship between the age at which children moved from Tanner I to Tanner II — that is, the age at which the physical beginnings of puberty were noticed — and the likelihood of depression in those children when they were 12 to 15 years old, as detected on a screening questionnaire.

“What we found was the girls who had earlier breast development had a higher risk of depressive symptoms, or more depressive symptoms,” said Dr. C. Mary Schooling, an epidemiologist who is a professor at the City University of New York School of Public Health, and was the senior author on the study. “We didn’t see the same thing for boys.” Earlier onset of breast development in girls was associated with a higher risk of depression in early adolescence even after controlling for many other factors, including socioeconomic status, weight or parents’ marital status.

Other studies, including in the United States, have shown this same pattern, with girls who begin developing earlier than their peers vulnerable to depression in adolescence. Some studies have found this in boys, though it’s not as clear. But there is concern that girls whose development starts earlier than their peers are at risk in a number of ways, and across different cultural backgrounds.

“Early puberty is a challenge and a stress, and it’s associated with more than depression,” said Dr. Jane Mendle, a clinical psychologist in the department of human development at Cornell University. She named anxiety, disordered eating and self-injury as some of the risks for girls. In her studies of puberty, she has found associations between early development and depression in both genders in New York children. In boys, the tempo of puberty was significant, as well as the timing; boys who moved more rapidly from one Tanner stage to the next were at higher risk and the increased depression risk seemed to be related to changes in their peer relationships.

Before puberty, Dr. Mendle said, depression occurs at roughly the same rate in both sexes, but by the midpoint of puberty, girls are two and a half times more likely to be depressed than boys.

Some of these children may already be at risk; Dr. Mendle said that early puberty is more common in children who have grown up in circumstances of adversity, in poverty, in the foster care system. But some of it is heredity and some of it is body type and some of it, probably, is chance.

Researchers have wondered about hormonal associations with depression; Dr. Schooling pointed out that their study found that depression was associated with early breast development, controlled by estrogens, but not with early pubic hair development, controlled by androgens. “There is no physical factor that we know about that would explain this; estrogen has been eliminated as a driver of depression in earlier research,” she said in an email. “We probably need to explore social factors to seek an explanation.” They also plan to follow up with their study population at age 17.

The biological transition of puberty, of course, occurs in a social and cultural context. One very important effect of developing early, Dr. Mendle said, is that it changes the way that people treat you, from your peers to the adults in your life to strangers. “When kids navigate puberty they start to look different,” she said. “It can be hard for them to maintain friendships with kids who haven’t developed, and we also know that early maturing girls are more likely to be harassed and victimized by other kids in their grade.”

Parents should be aware of the difficulties that children may experience if they start puberty earlier than their peers, but lots of children handle early development with resiliency, and even pride.

Children who start puberty early – say, 8 instead of 12 — are faced with handling those physical changes while they are more childlike in their knowledge and their cognitive development, and in their emotional understanding of what goes on around them.

Parents should keep in mind that the same protective factors that help children navigate other challenges of growing up are helpful here: All children do better when they have good relationships with their parents, and when they feel connected at school. And we should be talking about the changes to their bodies before they happen, and make it clear that all of these topics are open for discussion.

HD-Today e-Newsletter, Summer 2016 Issue

By Allison M. Hermann, Ph.D.

LRDM lab members and 4-H Career Explorations students

LRDM lab members and 4-H Career Explorations students

The Laboratory for Rational Decision Making (LRDM), led by Dr. Valerie Reyna in Human Development, welcomed 24 high school students from 18 different counties throughout New York State as part of a 3-day course in decision making research called, “Getting the Gist.” The high school students journeyed to Cornell University as part of the 4-H Career Explorations Conference that offers secondary school students the opportunity to attend courses and workshops and learn about STEM research.

get-the-gist-add

James Jones-Rounds, Lab Manager of the HEP Lab

The high school students became guest LRDM lab members and learned how to turn their questions about risky decision making into experiments. They created an experiment, collected and analyzed the data, and discussed the results. The student career explorers also toured the Center for Magnetic Resonance Imaging Facility and the EEG and Psychophysics Laboratory and saw how decision research uses brain imaging technologies to examine what brain areas are activated when making risky decisions.

Dr. Reyna’s graduate students' David Garavito, Alisha Meschkow and Rebecca Helm, and research staff member, Bertrand Reyna-Brainerd, presented lectures on Dr. Reyna’s fuzzy trace theory and research design and led interactive discussions with the visiting students about the paths that led the graduate students to the LRDM at Cornell. In addition, three undergraduate members of the lab, Tristan Ponzo (’18), Elana Molotsky (’17) and Joe DeTello (’19) delivered poster presentations of current lab research projects. Feedback from one of the career explorers expressed the gist of the program, “Yes, I definitely feel like I have a better understanding of why I make the decisions I do.”

Reprinted from College of Human Ecology tumblr, June 20, 2016

For their work on aging, two College of Human Ecology faculty members have been named fellows for the Gerontological Society of America.

Corinna Loeckenhoff

Corinna Loeckenhoff, associate professor of human development and associate professor of gerontology in medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College (WCMC), and Elaine Wethington, professor of human development and of sociology and professor of gerontology in geriatrics at WCMC, were two of 94 professionals named on May 31 to the society, which is the largest of its kind seeking to understand aging in the United States.

As fellows, Loeckenhoff and Wethington are being recognized for their “outstanding and continuing work in gerontology,” specifically in the behavioral and social sciences section of the

society.

Loeckenhoff, above, who directs the Laboratory for Healthy Aging and oversees Cornell’s gerontology minor, researches various topics related to health, personality, and emotions across the lifespan. She has taught undergraduate and graduate level courses on the various aspects of adult development and healthy aging.

Wethington, below, director of undergraduate studies for the Department of Human Development and associate director of the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, focuses on stress and how outside factors can affect one’s physical and mental health.

Elaine Wethington

The society will formally recognize Loeckenhoff, Wethington, and its other new fellows at its 2016 Annual Scientific Meeting in New Orleans this November.

- By Tyler Alicea ‘16, MPS ‘17

cornell human ecology gerontological society of america human development gerontologyaging psychology corinna loeckenhoff elaine wethington

By H. Roger Segelken

Republished from Cornell Chronicle, April 25, 2016

Ong & Loeckenhoff

Human development professors Anthony Ong and Corinna Loeckenoff. Jason Koski/University Photography

New approaches to understanding physical and psychological changes in old age – differences in personality, for instance, or responses to stressful events and the role of positive emotions in promoting well-being – are presented in a new book co-edited by Cornell human development professors Anthony Ongand Corinna Loeckenhoff.

Emotion, Aging, and Health” presents selected concepts from the Fourth Biennial Urie Bronfenbrenner Conference on New Developments in Aging, Emotion and Health hosted on campus in 2013 by Loeckenhoff and Ong.

“We’re only beginning to understand the complex interplay between emotional experiences and physical health across the adult life span,” said Loeckenhoff. “One of the most important developments in recent years is this: We can finally draw connections between subjective emotional experience, patterns of brain activation, and biomarkers of chronic stress.”

Loeckenhoff said science has been “so focused on understanding emotion as a marker of mental health that we have overlooked its implications for physical health. Especially in later life, emotional responses can buffer the adverse effects of physical conditions; but they (emotional responses) can also be a risk factor for adverse health outcomes.”

Ong said the publication “provides a state-of-the art overview of methods and approaches associated with the study of emotional aging and health. The chapters, written by leading researchers in the field, discuss topics such as emotion regulation, cross-cultural research, healthy aging and interventions.” He hopes some of the questions raised will stimulate future investigation, and that the new volume will help students and scholars “gain a working understanding of research approaches and key issues at the intersection of emotion, aging and health.”

emotion book

Conference presenters – mainly psychologists and experts in human development – came from an international cross-section of institutions: Cornell, Harvard, Northeastern and Stanford universities and the University of California, among others, as well as Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.

Previous topics for the conference-and-publication series honoring Urie Bronfenbrenner (1917-2005), the longtime Cornell professor of human development and of psychology, included “Chaos and Its Influence on Children’s Development” and “The Neuroscience of Risky Decision Making.” A founder of the national Head Start program, Bronfenbrenner joined the Cornell faculty in 1948. The Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research (BCTR) in the College of Human Ecology honors his vision to join science and service.

Writing the volume’s foreword, gerontologist Karl Pillemer, Cornell’s Hazel E. Reed Professor of Human Development and BCTR director, imagines the book would please Bronfenbrenner. “As a translational researcher before the name existed, he would embrace the themes of development and plasticity in later life, the importance given to social and cultural factors in understanding emotions, and the commitment to applying these scientific insights in creating an optimal world in which to grow old.”

H. Roger Segelken is a freelance writer.

In a digital world where information is at your fingertips, be prepared to hold on tight before it slips right through them. Research at Cornell and Beijing University finds retweeting or otherwise sharing information creates a “cognitive overload” that interferes with learning and retaining what you’ve just seen.twitter-1084764_640

Worse yet, that overload can spill over and diminish performance in the real world.

“Most people don’t post original ideas any more. You just share what you read with your friends,” said Qi Wang, professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology. “But they don’t realize that sharing has a downside. It may interfere with other things we do.”

Wang and colleagues in China conducted experiments showing that “retweeting” interfered with learning and memory, both online and off. The experiments are described in Issue 59 (2016) of the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

The experiments were conducted at Beijing University, with a group of Chinese college students as subjects. At computers in a laboratory setting, two groups were presented with a series of messages from Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. After reading each message, members of one group had options either to repost or go on to the next message. The other group was given only the “next” option.

After finishing a series of messages, the students were given an online test on the content of those messages. Those in the repost group offered almost twice as many wrong answers and often demonstrated poor comprehension. What they did remember they often remembered poorly, Wang reported. “For things that they reposted, they remembered especially worse,” she added.

The researchers theorized that reposters were suffering from “cognitive overload.” When there is a choice to share or not share, the decision itself consumes cognitive resources, Wang explained.

This led to a second experiment: After viewing a series of Weibo messages, the students were given an unrelated paper test on their comprehension of a New Scientist article. Again, participants in the no-feedback group outperformed the reposters. Subjects also completed a Workload Profile Index, in which they were asked to rate the cognitive demands of the message-viewing task. The results confirmed a higher cognitive drain for the repost group.

“[The sharing] leads to cognitive overload, and that interferes with the subsequent task,” Wang said. “In real life when students are surfing online and exchanging information and right after that they go to take a test, they may perform worse,” she suggested.

Noting that other research has shown people often pay more attention to elements of a web design such as “repost” or “like” than to the content, the researchers suggest that web interfaces should be designed to promote rather than interfere with cognitive processing. “Online design should be simple and task-relevant,” Wang concluded.

The research was supported by the Chinese National Natural Science Foundation.

Reprinted from Research Cornell News
by Alexandra Chang

An 18-month-old boy sits on his father’s lap in a small room furnished with a child-sized chair and a short table. The boy faces a monitor. On it, a video starts to play. A woman, Psychology graduate student Kate Brunick, assembles a simple toy—she holds two bright green cups, places a plastic object inside one, brings the cups together, and closes them to form a capsule. She shakes it; it’s a makeshift rattle.

As the boy watches the video, Michael H. Goldstein, Psychology, and his graduate students observe from the B.A.B.Y. (Behavioral Analysis of Beginning Years) lab’s observation room, a space hidden behind one-way glass and filled with monitors and video controls. Once the recording is done, Psychology graduate student Melissa Elston heads into the room where the boy and father sit. She’s carrying the toy from the video clip and places it on top of the table in front of the boy.

The boy doesn’t budge. After a couple minutes of encouragement from Elston, it’s clear he’s not assembling a rattle on this visit. It’s not a failure. This is exactly what Goldstein expects.

The study is just one of the many taking place at Cornell’s infant labs, where researchers are discovering more about the nuances of infant development. It’s a crucial area of academic research and exploration, given the impact early development has on later stages of life.

How Babies Learn in Social Settings

This particular study is on a phenomenon called the "video deficit effect," in which babies from 12 to 30 months are much worse at learning from video presentations than from real-life experiences. The group studies the babies in three scenarios: one in which babies see a live presentation of putting the toy together, another with an automatic pre-recorded video, and a third in which the baby has to press a button in order to play the pre-recorded video. Their theory is that the first group will learn, the second won’t, and the third will because the experience is contingent on and immediately follows their own action.

The study falls under the lab’s research on how babies learn in social context. Most of the work Goldstein and his codirector, Jennifer Schwade, do is on how social interactions affect the acquisition of speech and language in both babies and songbirds (in their case, song). Contingency, they’ve found, is crucial to learning.

Goldstein argues that the social behavior of adults contains patterns that can guide young learners. “If you want to understand how infants learn, you’ve got to understand not only what’s in the baby’s head but what social environment the baby’s head is in,” he says.

Alongside Goldstein, Steven S. Robertson and Marianella Casasola, Human Development, run baby labs at Cornell.

How Babies Collect Information from Their Environment through Visual Foraging

Steve S. Roberston, Professor in Human Development

If, when you think of an infant lab, you imagine a baby outfitted with sensors, you’re on the right track when it comes to Robertson’s research. He examines mind–body relations in very young babies, typically three-month-olds. Specifically, he looks at the relationships between vision, motor activity, and attention during visual foraging, a major way in which infants gather information from their surroundings.

“If you want to understand how infants learn, you’ve got to understand not only what’s in the baby’s head but what social environment the baby’s head is in,” Goldstein says.

To study the dynamics of visual foraging, Robertson depends on EEG measurements and a few flashing rubber ducks. When a baby arrives at the lab, she is placed in a high chair in front of three yellow rubber ducks. The ducks are outfitted with LED lights and attached to motor-controlled rods that can move them right and left. Atop the baby’s head is an EEG cap. It measures the oscillations in the activity of visual neurons. Each duck’s light flashes at a different frequency and the baby’s oscillations in neural activity will match the frequency of the duck receiving her attention.

Through these measurements, Robertson knows when a baby is paying attention to a certain duck. A video camera records the baby, so they can see how her eyes move in relation to that attention. What Robertson found and reported in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2012 is that attention is not always directly correlated to gaze. In fact, babies redirect their attention to a new duck ahead of actually looking at it. What’s more surprising is that a second or two before shifting to the new duck, babies actually paid more attention to the duck they didn’t choose to look at.

Robertson sees this behavior as consistent with the inhibition of return (IOR) observed in adults. In IOR, attention is suppressed toward previously inspected areas or objects in favor of new locations or objects. It would make sense for a baby to look at, and focus attention toward, a duck that it had not been paying attention to earlier.

Robertson is currently conducting further studies to test whether the behavior in infants truly is the development of IOR. “The adaptive value of this in visual exploration is that it keeps you from going to the same spot,” Robertson says. “You get to literally explore new locations in your environment and pick up new information.” And he adds that it’s especially important to study in infants because “the nature of visual input during this period has important consequences for the structural and functional development of the brain,” which happens quickly in early infancy.

Understanding Spatial Language Skills

20130506_casasola_portrait_48

Marianella Casasola, Proessor in Human Development

Casasola agrees that looking at babies is crucial for tracing how certain skills develop. One of her main interests is in understanding the link between spatial cognition and the acquisition of spatial language—language relating to space, location, and shapes.

Spatial awareness is a core cognitive ability. It is linked to achievement in math and sciences and has broader implications for everyday life. For example, spatial cognition relates to our ability to navigate, to project how objects will look from different angles, and even to reading orientation. Casasola wants to understand how these skills develop, but she also aims to figure out how they relate to acquisition of spatial language and what sorts of experiences promote spatial skills.

For this area of research, Casasola studies a wide age range, from babies at 14 months up to toddlers at 4.5 years old. The studies vary from age to age. For example, younger babies watch a computer animation of two halves of a shape—say, a heart—on either side of a curtain. The two halves move together and then disappear behind the curtain. The curtain then lifts and shows the whole heart. Or, it could show a completely different shape, like a square. Casasola relies on infant looking time to determine how they perceive these expected and unexpected shapes.

Older children are asked to put halves of foam shapes together. Casasola has also done naturalistic studies, during which researchers play with kids using spatial toys—puzzles, origami, and Legos. One group receives a lot of spatial language: “Fold the paper horizontally, you’ve made a triangle.” The other group receives general language, like “do this, now fold it like this, look what you’ve made.” What Casasola’s research found is that children with more exposure to spatial language are much better at naming shapes. The more spatial language a child acquires, the better they are at accomplishing nonverbal spatial tasks. Throughout the studies of spatial learning, Casasola wants to determine at what ages significant advances can be made.

“No one has looked at trajectory, which is important,” she says. “It can answer questions like, how stable are spatial skills? It can also highlight when might be ultimate time periods to promote it.” Knowing this will be useful for effective interventions that nurture better spatial cognition to help babies and children develop better spatial cognition abilities.

Using the Research

Goldstein is already on his way to applying his research findings to real-world intervention. Cornell’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research has recently funded the B.A.B.Y. Lab’s pilot intervention program to aid infant language development in low socioeconomic status families.

In previous research, the lab found that the timing and the form of reactions to infant babbling are crucial for language development. For example, if a baby is babbling at a toy, it’s important to respond immediately and to engage with that toy. The baby then sees there’s a reward to vocalizing and takes the next learning step.

The work done in the infant labs has a direct public impact. “Outreach is the real key,” Goldstein says. “We’re doing work that should improve the lives of parents and infants.”

Reprinted from Human Ecology Magazine, Spring 2016

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Nathan Spreng, Assistant Professor in Human Development

In the Department of Human Development, fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) informs Nathan Spreng’s studies of large-scale brain network dynamics and their role in cognition.

A Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Sesquicentennial Faculty Fellow, Spreng is curious about how volunteer test subjects in his Laboratory of Brain and Cognition conceive of the future and how they navigate the social world. Then there’s the hypothesized link between thinking about the past and imagining the future. “These different cognitive tasks activate similar brain regions,” Spreng
explains. “But it’s actually the other regions they talk to that help determine whether we’re thinking about the past or the future.”

It’s not only when the brain is doing something—performing cognitive tasks—that’s interesting to Spreng. Neuroscientists also study brain activity while people are simply resting in the scanner. But do our brains ever truly “rest”?

Not according to Spreng: “Signaling is always going on up there. Understanding how different brain regions hum along together (or are connected functionally) while people are simply resting can tell us a lot about how their brains work during cognitive tasks, and might eventually help us predict how resilient they will be to aging or brain disease.”

Spreng believes there’s even more in the resting-state fMRI data than previously imagined. In collaboration with Peter Doerschuk, professor of biomedical engineering, Spreng is developing a new method for analyzing resting-state activity. Doerschuk, also a Harvard-educated medical doctor, excels at developing algorithms for high-performance software systems.

In published reports of their progress so far, Spreng and Doerschuk say they’re finding ways to add important new details to the map of the resting brain— details like causality and direction of information flow between regions. Cause
and signaling direction are important considerations, Spreng notes, “when characterizing exactly how that network operates, and how information flows through the system, and how it might be involved in cognitive functions.”

The Cornell collaborators say their new statistical method shows promise in tracking both causation and direction of neural signals, showing us that the resting brain is anything but.